During the early-70s, my father owned a tavern at the corner of 15th and Grove in Jersey City. I’d help him clean up Sunday mornings. At noon, he’d open the bar and I’d leave to walk home to the Jersey City Heights.
The first part of the walk was beneath the railroad overpasses that line the north-eastern edge of Jersey City. Crossing into Hoboken, I’d enter a silent stagnant neighborhood of under-occupied buildings and closed stores. One in particular fascinated me. At the corner of Observer and Monroe there was an antiquated storefront. The shop window extended out from the building’s brick wall and was elevated some three feet above the side walk, supported by what was once fancy woodwork. Sometimes, I’d go out of my way, crossing the street, to peer inside. Gazing through the wavy, greenish glass, I’d try to imagine what kind of business was once there. As the the only thing inside now was a yellowed copy of a defunct New York newspaper with the headline “Hitler invades Poland!,” whatever was once there was there a very long time ago.
One day, everything was different. Double-parked new Cadillacs, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles ringed in a loud crowd of burly guys in slacks and brightly-colored tight shirts. A couple of ladders were in place with assistants on the ground hoisting up a sign: Italian-American Civil Rights League.
Each Sunday as I went by, I’d see that the little colony of Italian pride and solidarity was buzzing with activity. A gas range was now up in the front, visible from the street. A guy weighing maybe 300 pounds and wearing a baseball cap on backwards was always standing at the stove stirring something in a big pot. Men sat outside, elbows propped up on the backs of reversed chairs. Many of the League members held coffee mugs. From time to time, someone came out of the store with a big jug of wine and poured it into the mugs. People carried heavy cases inside glancing nervously over their shoulders. Every so often a car would screech to a stop with a lurch forward and the driver’d lean out the vehicle’s window and scream something like, “Hey, SAL is your cousin DANNY AROUND?”
On June 28, 1971, Joe Colombo, head of the Colombo Family — and the Italian-American Civil Rights League — was shot. The following Sunday, as I headed up Monroe, I looked across the street. The sign was gone. The cars were gone. The people were gone. The stove was gone. I walked across the street for a closer look. The only thing inside now was an old newspaper: “Hitler invades Poland!”